Airlines take our safety seriously, as they keep telling us, which might explain why they make such awful safety films. Most of them traditionally confuse being serious with being dull. That's why they make you do up the seat belt, to stop you walking out.
The dull airline safety film reigned for about 20 years, from the introduction of in-seat entertainment screens in the late-1980s until 2007, when Virgin America broke the mould. They commissioned a cartoon full of freaky-looking punk characters and added a slightly-over-it male voice-over: ''For the point zero zero zero one per cent of you who have never operated a seatbelt before, it works like this…''
They were a new airline with nothing to lose, and the idea caught on. In 2009, Air New Zealand released the first of its now legendary silly safety videos – and the whole idea of the safety film changed. The video featured flight crew in full body paint and not much else, doing the safety instructions. It was a tease, in other words, but there was an inherent gamble in this idea: would the passengers pay attention to what they were being told, or just sit there wondering if the hosties were going to do a full flash?
That's the dilemma when you try to make safety entertaining: there's a fine line between communicating important details and distracting from them. Air NZ is the world champion of entertaining safety films, but even they fell foul of their Civil Aviation Authority last year with a fast-paced video featuring some of the world's top surfers, in top spots like Raglan Beach, Malibu and the Gold Coast, talking people through the safety announcements.
The NZ CAA passed the film for use, but wagged a finger. "As we have commented previously, the video diverges materially from the 'safety message' at times, and whilst I appreciate the need to engage the viewers, the extraneous material detracts from the scope and direction of the safety message," wrote a CAA official in a leaked letter.
One might wonder why they passed it if they thought that. Could that have something to do with the large amounts of money Air New Zealand spends on its safety films? How much remains a secret, but it's a lot. An advertising producer I know believes they must have spent between $NZ1.5 million and $2.5 million on the Most Epic Safety Film Ever Made – listed below.
The surfing film, showcasing places they fly to, was both a marketing tool and a safety film and that's the new trend. That has only become possible in the last ten years with the rise of the internet. We no longer need the plane to watch a safety film. YouTube has hundreds of them, and some of them are extremely popular. Air New Zealand's dozen or so funny films since the body-paint one have gathered more than 100 million views. That's a powerful marketing tool. It's no wonder the airline is prepared to throw money at them.
Clearly, the airline safety film needs a film festival, where they can compete with each other. Cat videos have one, so why not air safety films? We could call it the Mile High Film Festival – although that might suggest a different kind of video. Perhaps the Buckle-Up Film Fest, the Captive Audience FF, or even the Higher Plane FF? Whatever, here are my picks for the ten safety videos that absolutely have to compete for the inaugural and highly coveted Forward D'or prize that I just made up.
Qantas, Safety in style, 2017
THE REVIEW Qantas comes to this party late but their new video is a cracker – lots of glamorous locations, from Queensland beaches to the Salamanca markets in Hobart, lots of wry jokes. A window cleaner on a scaffold on a Gold Coast skyscraper demonstrates why seatbelts are important; the skipper of Wild Oats knows why your life vest could save your life, and the Bangarra Dance Company shows us the brace position with a dance involving chairs and flares, shot on a headland near Sydney at dusk. My favourite joke: a woman at an outdoor wedding in WA talks about the importance of knowing where the nearest exit is.
Watch the 2017 Qantas safety video above.
THE SCORE 8 oxygen masks out of 10
Air France, 2015
THE REVIEW Wow. The trend is to dispense with the plane and create a set instead, but this Air France film goes a lot further in stylisation and ''French flair''. Six gorgeous models dance through a set that's a cross between a spaceship and a French chateau. Each wears bold primary colours – red, white, blue, the airline's livery – but each outfit is different. One does the announcements, in both French and English, with sexy humour. ''Your seatbelt must be securely fastened,'' she purrs. ''It will elegantly highlight your waistline, while ensuring your safety''. It's terribly chic, while taking the mickey out of the French reputation for being chic. Genial! youtube.com/watch?v=0N3J6fE-0JI
THE SCORE 9 oxygen masks
American Airlines, 2016
THE REVIEW Another funky stylised built-set video, but with lots of twists. A female flight attendant walks us through sets that change before our eyes using floating panels and mirrors, all of it choreographed to a beat. The soundtrack is made up of real sounds recorded in and around the airline's planes. Director Jeff Tremaine used airline employees to deliver clear messages but with ''trompe l'oeil'' jokes and flourishes, like the passenger whose seat belt is actually a pair of hands coming from out behind his seat; another hand snakes up and turns off his mobile phone and removes his cigar. Most of the effects are done in-camera in real-time. Very modern and creative, but the messages remain clear.
THE SCORE 8 oxygen masks
Air New Zealand Safety in Hollywood, 2016
THE REVIEW Featuring comic Rhys Darby and American actress Anna Faris in a series of movie locations, each one sillier than the last, on the backlot at Warner Bros. They go from LA cops chasing a pot dealer (a man with many pots), through a Parisian romance (baguettes akimbo) to a western shootout, with a couple of hosties popped in between to talk about safety. Even the flight attendants have trouble keeping a straight face. Silly as, bro.
THE SCORE 7 oxygen masks
Virgin America #VXsafetydance, 2013
THE REVIEW This one's so funky you want to get up and dance. In a warehouse set, a team of dancers struts forward with song-and-dance stars John Song and Madd Chadd leading sexy-as-can-be flight attendants through a fully choreographed tune about safety. Favourite moment: the guy sings about turning off your electrical devices ''as fast as you can'', as they all converge on a nun playing with her phone. He grabs it from her hands and sings ''and don't make me ask you again''. This was done by John M Chu, who has directed a number of Hollywood features, including Step up 2: The Streets. It's full of energy and would be very hard to ignore on a plane.
THE SCORE 8 oxygen masks
Air New Zealand, Crazy about Rugby, 2010
THE REVIEW The foreign passengers might have no idea why this one is funny but lovers of rugby got a kick (ouch). The great Richie McCaw is the pilot here (no stretch since he flies his own helicopter), Graham Henry (former All Blacks coach) is co-pilot, and bit players included Richard Kahui, Conrad Smith and Mils Muliaina – famous All Blacks all. Broadcaster Tony (''TJ'') Johnson has a cameo and a little old lady streaks down the aisle at the end, with appropriate fuzzy buts, er, bits. It's funny but it shows how quickly topical air safety films can date.
THE SCORE 6 oxygen masks
Delta, The Internetest Safety Video on the Internet
THE REVIEW Delta has a series of cheap and cheerful sight-gag safety videos, with flight attendants giving straight info while the passengers carry the laughs. There's one where the passengers are all done up with big hair and gym fashions representing the 1980s, but more creative is this one featuring a whole raft of internet memes, starting with the cat that plays an organ, as the soundtrack. When they talk about stowing your items, an Indian yogi stuffs his rainbow aura in the overhead; a billy goat features in the anti-smoking part and some kind of beaver in the bit about exits. It's clearly a compromise between straight safety and humour, and older passengers will be scratching their melons, but it's likeably low-tech.
THE SCORE 7 oxygen masks
United Airlines – Safety is Global, 2014
THE REVIEW United went international, with locations all over the world, for this glossy effort – including using kangaroos in Australia to illustrate the location of the life jacket (in a pouch, get it?). There are two of these ads so far, founded on quirky and clever ideas. A female attendant in a cab on her way to Newark Airport lectures the driver about how to wear his seatbelt; a Japanese attendant near Mt Fuji does an origami version of the plane to illustrate the exits. The information remains crystal clear but the delivery is charming and different.
THE SCORE 7 oxygen masks
Qatar Airways – FC Barcelona, 2015
THE REVIEW This is a class act, starting with the clever way it exploits the airline's existing sponsorship of the famous football team. Cast includes star players Lionel Messi, Gerard Pique, Luis Suarez, Javier Mascherano and Neymar Da Silva. Most of the safety illustrations take place in the team's Barcelona stadium. The passengers strap into stadium seats as they watch the game, the referee illustrates why you have to turn off your phone (on the field), the players stop playing when someone blows his life jacket whistle, and there's a hilarious sequence in slow-motion as heartthrob Pique walks past a group of gasping women outside an airport. They are so overcome with excitement that oxygen masks drop down from thin air, as if by magic. It's a great example of how to entertain without losing the message.
THE SCORE 9 oxygen masks
Air New Zealand – The Most Epic Safety Video Ever Made, 2014.
THE REVIEW This is truly the one ad to rule them all and in the darkness bind them. Directed by Taika Waititi (director of Boy and Hunt for the Wilderpeople), it must have cost a fortune. Waititi plays Gandalf demonstrating the brace position while flying on an eagle's back across the snow-capped mountains of Middle Earth. Sir Peter Jackson sits in an airline seat on top of a mountain as orcs and dwarves charge o'er the planes below, while telling a nerdy Hobbit fan to stow all electronic devices. Elijah Wood finishes it off with a goodwill message from outside Bilbo Baggins' house. This is much more than a safety ad: it's a major spectacle, banking off the fame of Lord of the Rings for a full-scale tourism offensive. It will be hard to top, having racked up 16 million views on YouTube. It shows how far the safety film has come in a decade. And the Oscar (correct envelope, please) goes to …
THE SCORE 10 oxygen masks
Paul Byrnes is a film critic for Fairfax Media, and a former director of the Sydney Film Festival.
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